Characters in film are often defined or limited by their mental capacities. Regardless of genre, personalities in movies are driven by their abilities to think, react, communicate, and convey emotion. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) exhibits these factors especially well. Produced by Warner Brothers in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the film delved into the triumphs and pitfalls of returning veterans to the home front. This melodrama became the most successful film of the 1940s because of its highly relevant nature to society.
Nearly sixty years later, a lesser-known production entitled The Machinist (2004) surprisingly enters similar cinematic territory. Focused on an emaciated industrial worker plagued by personal nightmares, the film is a psychological horror in the truest form. At first glance, these two films seemingly share little common ground. However, with closer scrutiny, one can realize that these movies are intimate portrayals of flawed individuals attempting to overcome traumatic moments of their pasts. In examining both the thematic and technical elements of these pictures, audiences and film students may gain not only a higher appreciation of cinema as art, but also a better understanding of the vulnerable human condition. In many instances, when we comprehend film we also gain new insights of our society and ourselves. The Best Years of Our Lives and The Machinist reveal these traits in surprisingly creative and evocative ways.
The first manner in which one can analyze these films is to categorize them within the cinematic genres to which they belong. The Best Years of Our Lives is to be considered a melodrama in every way, shape, and form. The film expresses notions found in Physical Melodramas because several of the characters face personal “conditions that repress or control the protagonist’s desires and emotions.” These types of “physical restrictions may be related to the places and people that surround that person or may simply be a product of the person’s” traits (Corrigan, p. 332). The character of Homer Parrish is the embodiment of this persona. As a World War II sailor who lost both of his hands during combat, Parrish is confined to limitations of his disability while constantly worrying about his abilities to find a vocation or provide for his girlfriend. This is equally true of character Fred Derry’s difficult readjustment due to his post-traumatic problems—compounding dilemmas with his already tense marriage.
This, in turn, also makes The Best Years of Our Lives a Family Melodrama, for it delves into the social and gender frameworks apparent in the postwar era. On one hand, Fred’s wife, Marie, became accustomed to her domestic independence in the wake of her husband’s wartime absence. This is symbolic of the growing sense of female independence in wartime America as women increasingly joined the work force and enjoyed a new form of liberty. This change causes Fred and Marie’s domestic worlds to collide upon his arrival home. On the flip side, the character of Al Stephenson is emblematic of the strong, patriarchal figure of Family Melodramas as he tries to protect his daughter’s virtue from the romantic (and married) Fred. In a quickly-changing world, Al attempts to hang onto the family he left behind at the outset of the war.
These alterations in family structure also point out themes of a Social Melodrama within The Best Years of Our Lives. This moment in American History was defined by transition and prosperity. All of the characters in this film are swept into these broader forces of society. The most obvious issue is the readjustment of returning soldiers and sailors to peacetime life. While many veterans started families, moved to the suburbs, bought cars, and made use of the GI Bill, others also suffered from PTSD, alcoholism, poverty, and uncertainty. This film exhibits all of these traits in many ways as the characters attempt to reclaim or remake their lives.
While The Best Years of Our Lives certainly includes dark elements, but The Machinist takes the darkness to another level. This psychological horror film “locate[s] the dangers and distortions that threaten normal life in the minds of bizarre and deranged individuals” (Corrigan, p. 337). In this case, actor Christian Bale’s character of Trevor Reznik has difficulty separating reality from his own personal nightmares. While the key players in The Best Years of Our Lives certainly have troubled flashbacks, these mental recollections never weaken them to the point of psychological and physical breakdown as one can see in Bale’s characterization. Ultimately, both Fred and Trevor are able to release themselves from the horrors of their past even though their characters experience different fates as a result.
The Machinist and its plot are quite complex. This unreliable and reflexive narration tries to fool the audience. Full of complex twists and turns, the movie is a mental game of cat and mouse in which both the character and audience cannot differentiate reality from fantasy. In this sense, The Machinist is an immersive cinematic experience because those watching the film are as baffled as the main character. The movie “calls attention to the narrative point of view in order to subvert its narrative authority” (Corrigan). As a result, the audience must constantly question the plot and narrative. Additionally, the storyline of The Machinist falls within a group “that similarly challenges a traditional humanist understanding of the world, and which suggests, somehow, that human identity is not fixed and/or stable. This group includes films in which characters turn out to be someone other than who they thought they were” (Buckland, p. 68).
The Best Years of Our Lives is a multiple and omniscient narrative for rather simple yet visually stunning reasons. The film falls within the omniscient tone because director William Wyler’s directing and cinematographer Greg Tolland’s utilization in deep focus shots are so subtle that, in combination with an excellent script, the film almost has a documentary feel. This technique gently captures the multiple perspectives of the film via personal portraits of the characters. The film seemingly is comprised of separate stories, yet all of them are effectively drawn together through Wyler’s direction. This mode of filmmaking is quite different from the filmmaking of the pre-World War II era. Therefore, “the stark and often horrific events raised questions about whether the classic narrative formulas of linear plots . . . could adequately capture the period’s far messier and more confusing realities” (Corrigan, p. 220). Thus, The Best Years of Our Lives serves as a prime example of post-classical cinema in its dramatic transformation from the previous method of Hollywood storytelling.
From a historical standpoint, The Best Years of Our Lives follows “the expert discourse of the ‘veterans problem,’ both in its depiction of the able-bodied and disabled veterans’ readjustment difficulties and in its dependence on gendered prescriptions to resolve them” (Gerber, p. 91). In this sense, Homer (himself a machinist’s mate) becomes the vessel illustrating “spiritual rehabilitation” and rebirth via his marriage with Wilma. This, in turn, conveys the all-important message of “hope and reconciliation” (Gerber, pp. 70-71). In The Machinist, too, Trevor also finds reconciliation as he turns himself into the police for his hit and run accident. Both Homer and Trevor are able to overcome their physical limitations and release themselves from the invisible chains of their troubled personalities.
There are various ways film can affect the audience’s hearts and minds. One way is through the movement of the camera, or cinematography. In The Best Years of Our Lives the sequence shot and the long shot were taken advantage of quite effectively. “This type of filmmaking more closely approximates human perception and is thus more realistic than montage” (Corrigan, p. 113). But, most importantly, the film is praised for its deep focus photography. A fine example of this style of camerawork is when the character Sgt. Al Stephenson comes home and embraces his wife. The camera was placed at the other end of the hallway with their children standing in the frames foreground, watching their father and mother reunite after many years of separation. This “balance indicate[s] restored family harmony” (Corrigan, p. 113) and helps the audience feel the moment. Another example of this deep focus effect is the scene when Fred and Peggy converse at the drugstore counter. They are seen talking in the foreground. Meanwhile, in the background, the store manager can be clearly seen peering out his office window. “Because of Wyler's use of deep focus photography, The Best Years of Our Lives contains less than 200 separate shots. The average Hollywood film of the period had 300 to 400 shots per hour” (Miller).
The Machinist, quite similar to many Alfred Hitchcock movies in its tone and Bernard Hermann-like score, uses diluted and colorless cinematography to capture hopelessness. The essence of abandonment and loneliness is conveyed by a grayish-green tinge to add a dreary look to the industrial setting in which Trevor lives. Similar techniques have been implemented in movies such as Saving Private Ryan, Traffic, Saw, and Letters from Iwo Jima to paint the horrid landscapes of war, drugs, and criminals. Thanks to cinematographers Xavi Gimenez and Charlie Jiminez, The Machinist offers a sense of lost hope and depression.
While the two films have many dissimilarities, they both interpret psychological problems while also providing sanctuaries for their main characters. In The Best Years of Our Lives the war torn veterans meet at Butch’s Bar several times. This bar allows the characters to gather in fellowship and to grasp reality. In the airport café featured in The Machinist, Trevor treks to this establishment not to get in touch with reality, but to escape it. In this, audiences can also gauge the importance of setting for the sake of character stability and motivation. The Best Years of Our Lives and The Machinist reflect different time periods and different styles of filmmaking. That said, they both are highly artistic representations of the frailty of the human condition, offering us perspectives on both fictional characters and ourselves. Such is the power of cinema.